The world is full of great seafood markets - Pike Place in Seattle, the Pescheria in Venice, Fulton in New York City, Pyrmont in Sydney - and I mean them no disservice by saying that each pales before Tsukiji (pronounced "tsu-ki-gee"). Built in 1935, it's a temple of frutti di mare to which legions of chefs, foodies, and curiosity seekers have gravitated despite the fact that the market makes absolutely no attempt to be tourist-friendly. There are few banners, no brochures, no postcards. As the epicenter of Tokyo's dining industry, Tsukiji mostly serves the locals, not tour groups, and the boisterous are no more welcome here than they would be at the Vatican during Easter Mass.
None of which diminishes the steady stream of camera-toting but respectful pilgrims who flock to Tsukiji year-round. Abutting the seafood mecca is an outer market where visitors could easily spend entire afternoons in shops devoted to tea and seaweed, dumplings, the omelet-like tamagoyaki, knives, and fish scales. But really, who comes all this way to study fish scales?
Tsukiji surprises both for what it is and for what it isn't. A thoroughly unprepossessing spectacle, the market's structure - hardly as picturesque as that of Venice's - is really a complex of glorified sheds housing some 830 stalls. The rows are narrow and cramped; to the uninitiated who can't read the Japanese markers, the layout virtually guarantees that you'll get lost, at least momentarily. At the same time, it's clean, odorless, and (typical for Japan) almost monastically quiet. Above all, Tsukiji is vast.
Hundreds of millions of kilos of seafood are sold here annually, dwarfing its biggest North American counterpart, Fulton. Japan being a series of islands, the Tsukiji Fish Market represents its vital daily harvest.
The first time I visited Tsukiji, as a landlocked Texas lad living in Tokyo during most of 1986, I didn't know anything about seafood, less still about cooking it. That day, crazed from the Jurassic Park-like experience of witnessing alien beings, I bought gigantic prawns with wild stripes and oysters the size of a baby's head, and in the kitchen I treated these strange and ultrafresh ingredients with surgical care. Later, I ventured into the world of fish, coming away with cousins of snapper and sea bass. Tsukiji made me fall in love with cooking. Here I learned that a bland term like clam or shrimp encompasses dozens of delicacies, each with its own flavor and texture. Here I learned that there is a big banquet out there, that my local grocery store hardly circumscribes it, and that in culinary affairs, adventure is its own reward. As a people, the team-spirit Japanese hardly rebel against conformity. And so it's ironic that Japan harbors one of the world's great monuments to cultural heterogeneity - and that it was on trips to Tsukiji that this American boy learned how to take risks with the altogether unfamiliar.
Along the way, I fell out of fear with the at-times esoteric cuisine of Japan. During my early morning jaunts to Tsukiji, I discovered shijimi, the tiny clams that give depth to miso soup, as well as the dried shards of bonito used for stock. I learned that the unsightly black kelp is a delicacy worthy of gift boxes - though I still stayed away from the stuff. And while I never cooked with eel, the constant sight of it splayed out in the stalls of Tsukiji helped me lose my squeamishness, and eventually I became a serious fan.
Though the market is primarily intended as a wholesale outlet, I found that my money was as good as any Ginza sushi chef's. As long as I understood that this was a place of commerce and not Seafood for Gaijin Dummies, every vendor endured my grunt-and-point technique and sold me what I wanted. For days after each trip to Tsukiji, my dreams would be flooded with the market's otherworldly images: jiggling bowls of bright-orange salmon eggs, a million flounder eyes considering me with unblinking perplexity. I left Japan in 1986 hooked on Tsukiji, and suspecting that my childlike infatuation with its offerings wouldn't recede with age, I was certain that I would be back one day, ready to gawk again.
AND SO THE GAWKER RETURNS.
Like any market, Tsukiji offers what's in season. Springtime brings boatloads of shark. In the summer, Tsukiji teems with swordfish and whale. When I reappeared in Tokyo this past October, the bluefin tuna were ubiquitous, caught from the Sea of Japan on fishing lines.
Tuna is always king at Tsukiji, its flesh prized and fussed over like no other. Freshly auctioned-off rows of bluefins lay in the sheds, bearing yellow tags with the fish's origin and its new owner notated. On long butchering tables, the vendors hack away at the tuna hides to get to the juiciest flesh. Standing nearby, the customers squint hard at the dark-red tuna meat, cutting off small slices from the toro, or belly, to judge its tenderness.
What staggers me as I zigzag through the stalls are the sizes and colors, none of which match the American experiences. Seething red-ark clams. Korean scallops the size of a child's fist. Nearly microscopic shrimp. I look into a tub of sawdust and see a dozen Shanghai crabs fidgeting inside. Flashing from the rows like rare coins are particular spectacles, like the brilliant silver and aptly named cutlass fish, and the brassy fillets of stingray. The Japanese are masters at beautification, as the merchants of Tsukiji demonstrate. In neat Styrofoam boxes, God's ugliest creatures, squid, glisten in silky uniformity. The only unredeemable sights are the trays filled with squirming tangles of eels - which the purveyor reaches into like he's scooping up a handful of rubber bands.
Words fail for some of these critters. There's a humpbacked fish streaked with psychedelic red - disappointingly named mebaru, or black rockfish. The half-pink, half-yellow fish I see on my rounds goes by itoyori, or golden threadfin bream. Whatever. I ask one of the vendors, a lean and well-wrinkled fellow, if he's seen anything new come out of the water recently.
"Once in a while," he says, "a little brighter in color. Or bigger than usual." Smiling, he adds, "I've been here over 30 years."
We're in Japan, but of course this is a marketplace, and the ocean has many scavengers. Thus I walk by a beautiful presentation of red Hokkaido shrimp alongside crustaceans from Russia, Iceland, China, New Zealand, Argentina, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Saudi Arabia. I ask a vendor where he thinks the best tuna comes from. "Mexico," he tells me.
I could do this for hours. But by this point, you're wondering: Is that all there is to Tsukiji - gazing at gills? Hardly. For if you're here as a tourist, a visit to the market is mere preamble, a warm-up to the main event, which is … sushi for breakfast, of course!
You cringe. You shouldn't. In truth, nothing is easier on the system, no eye-opener more gentle than the world's freshest seafood. On this trip, I wander over to the edge of the market where, midway down the alley of Building Six, a half-dozen customers stand in a line beside a door bearing a small orange flag. This is Daiwa Sushi, and it's not unknown, with good reason. (A couple of doors down stands an identical sliding door, this one obscured by a green flag, with a similar line: Sushi Dai, itself deservedly famous.) The line moves fast. A dowdy waitress slides open the small door, whisks a customer or two in, then slides the door closed again. Ten minutes later, I'm in.
Daiwa actually has two sushi counters partitioned off by a wall. One side is run by the father, the other by his son. This morning, I've got a bar stool on the dad's side. Though he's been making sushi at this very spot for nearly half a century, his skin is impossibly smooth, like the tuna belly he's cutting up. The other nine customers range from tourists to salarymen to market vendors. A couple of them are slurping Kirin beers, though it's not yet nine in the morning. I stick with the deep-green tea and the marvelously rich miso soup with the tiny clams rattling around in the bottom of the bowl. I ask the shiny-faced sushi chef for the Chef's Special, which costs about $30. He nods and slaps down a piece of toro. I ask him where the tuna is from.
"Boston," he grins.
There are no adornments to Daiwa, and the father and his assistant are too busy with their labors to offer cheap sideshows. All that matters is the meal, which is epic. My toro is followed by squid. Then tiger prawn. Then a roll of Russian sea urchin. Another tuna belly, slightly less fleshy, from the Indian Ocean. Six dozen pieces of tuna and salmon roe rolls. Snapper. The chef then reaches over the counter and hands me a small broiled shrimp head. It bursts in my mouth like candy. After that, a conga eel and a sweet omelet roll.
Before long, I'm lumbering out through the kitchen. It's a gray Tokyo morning, the kind that masks the time of day, and my body is both half defeated by jet lag and half exultant from the infusion of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. I decide to do another lap - see what the squids and the octopi are up to. When I finally close my eyes back at the hotel, I'll see those tentacles fanning about beneath my eyelids - waving to me, knowing I'm not going away for good.
Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market is a treat for the eyes and the belly-no matter what the hour.
IT'S BEST TO VISIT IN A DREAM STATE. VERY EARLY, THAT IS TO SAY, AND PREFERABLY AFTER HAVING FLOWN IN THE EVENING BEFORE, WHEN YOUR BODY IS INVOLUNTARILY TWITCHING AND YOUR HEAD IS SWAMPY WITH CONFUSION AND YOU'VE SPENT THE NIGHT THRASHING BENEATH THE BEDSHEETS…UNTIL THERE'S NO DENYING IT: YOU'RE AWAKE IN TOKYO, AND YOU MIGHT AS WELL TAKE YOUR PLACE AMONG THE NIGHTCLUB DENIZENS AND DROWSY SALARYMEN ON THAT FIVE A.M. METRO AND SEIZE THE DAY THAT HAS YET TO ARRIVE.
THIS IS APPARENT AS YOU ARRIVE ON THE PERIPHERY, SUDDENLY SWARMED BY DOZENS OF MEN ON BUZZING FORKLIFTS AND MOUNTAINS OF DISCARDED STYROFOAM CONTAINERS. YOU SHUFFLE PAST THEM AND INTO A CLOISTER-LIKE WAREHOUSE. AND IN YOUR DREAM STATE, WHAT YOUR EYES TAKE IN BARELY REGISTERS AS REALITY. YOU'RE STANDING ON THE FLOOR OF A DRAINED OCEAN, SURROUNDED BY ACRES UPON ACRES OF AQUATIC LIFE FORMS YOU'VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE. FINS AND TENTACLES AND SHELLS AND EGGS OF NAMELESS DENOMINATION, ALL UNDER DIM LAMPLIGHT.
STEP FORWARD, AND YOU HAVE LEFT BEHIND TOKYO'S 12 MILLION INHABITANTS. NOW YOU ARE IN TSUKIJI, AND YOU SLEEPWALK WITH THE FISHES.